She was born in Ayrshire in 1964 and with her family spent her early years in England before returning to Ayrshire. She graduated from Glasgow University with an MA (Hons) in Economic History and Sociology. She completed a post graduate Diploma in Industrial Administration at the Scottish College of Textiles, before moving to Edinburgh to join the financial services company Standard Life where she held various positions in sales and marketing, latterly as Brand Development Manager. Elected in the first session of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 she has been returned as the Constituency MSP for Linlithgow since 2011.
She was appointed as Cabinet Secretary of Education and Lifelong Learning in 2007 and was responsible for abolishing backend university tuition fees. She has had responsibility for culture and external affairs since 2009 and is currently the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture.